Is Moria the Promised Land?

21 10 2009

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Here’s something interesting that jumped out at me while playing Turbine’s Tolkien-themed MMO The Lord of the Rings Online on Saturday. The Morroval are monsters that live in Moria that the player must battle. These half-woman half-bat demon things are an original Turbine creation based on small references to “fouler things than orcs lurking in Moria” in the books and Morroval NPCs are programmed to issue various statements during battles. Some of them are hints on how to fight them. If one says “Protect me, my sisters!” that’s your Loremaster’s clue to dispel corruption because they’ve got a nasty protective enchantment that can make them really tough to kill. One thing that they say really got me and made me think though. Just before they die they’ll ask the player “Why do you attack us in our home?”

The more I think about that, the more I think that that statement must be deliberately provocative. The storyline in the Mines of Moria expansion is that the death of the Balrog has created a power vacuum in Moria and various factions in Middle-earth are moving in to take advantage of it and claim Moria and its treasures for their own. Throughout the game, the player is supporting an effort by the dwarves to reclaim their ancient home and will see Mordor and Isengard orcs fighting against goblins and other creatures that have been living in Khazad-dum long enough that they could conceivably be considered “native Morians.” Here’s the thing, though — if you apply a post-modern filter to this storyline, shouldn’t your sympathies lie with the Moria goblins and the Morroval?

LOTRO__Morroval_Variants_by_gorrem

Think about it. Khazad-dum was abandoned 7,000 years earlier when the Dwarves dug too deep in their search for Mithril and released the Balrog. That the Balrog is evil isn’t in doubt but what blame do the goblins who took up residence in the abandoned halls of Moria hold beyond doing what they needed to to survive under the brutal tyranny of the Balrog? At what point do the crimes of the past become irrelevant to the modern era? Yes, the Dwarves were kicked out of their home into a diaspora and have finally returned, but by what right do they claim land where hundreds of generations of goblins and Morroval have lived and died?

Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be any common ground between the three factions that could broker any sort of structured solution. Of course while hopeful peacemakers attempted to do so, the Dwarves would continue to build and expand their illegal settlements in the Dolven-view and the Twenty-first Hall while the goblins and Morroval fight back with what weapons they have — stealth, surprise and terror. It’s an endless cycle of violence where killing begets killing that merely begets more killing.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads one to make a moral equivalence where there really isn’t any. Yes, each side has some historical validity to their claims but ultimately my sympathy goes to that side that ultimately carries itself with greater moral elevation despite the often tough choices that war can create. In such a case, my sympathies must ultimately lie with the Dwarves not because of what the Morroval or the goblins do to them, but because of what goblins and Morroval do to each other and the kind of culture they create for themselves. Goblin and Morroval culture is one of stark brutality where the strong dominate the weak through murder and fear and rule by force is the norm. They make a virtue of killing and death and under their care Khazad-dum — a land of grace, beauty and freedom literally carved from the unforgiving Earth — became “Moria,” the Elvish word for “Black Pit.” No, the Dwarves are hardly innocents but when choosing between the imperfect and those who consciously choose evil (no matter that some of their claims may be justified), I’ll take the imperfect every time.

Any similarity between Moria and a particular country in the Middle-east is purely coincidental, by the way.

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9 responses

24 10 2009
Jess

It belonged to the Dwarves and will so again . End of story.

24 10 2009
SUMB44

In the Tolkein universe, the “right” to do something is often equated with the “might” to achieve it. Thus, as the Dwarves and their allies are capable of pushing into Moria and expelling whatever is there now, the very ability to conquer is testament to the moral correctness of their quest. Inability to prevail through force of arms is evidence of diminished moral standing. It’s an age old tale… told by the victors.

24 10 2009
delsyn

Actually that’s not true at all. In The lord of the Rings, it’s Sauron, not the Free people who has the power. He’s got both the military and magical muscle to crush Middle-Earth. It’s only his fear that a champion will arise using the power of his Ring that keeps him from utterly destroying the West. In fact, the point of the book is doing the one thing that Sauron would never concieve of — eschewing the use of power by destroying the Ring. In Tolkien, virtue is found in humble and the powerless as represented by the Hobbits, two of whom go on to save the world despite their own weakness and failings.

24 10 2009
gildhur

The benefit of these kind of discussions in the context of an MMO rather than a single-player linear game is that you can make those decisions for yourself. If you’re uncomfortable deposing the merrevail or goblins from Moria, you don’t have to. Yeah, it’s going to make leveling that much harder, but it’s still possible to skip all the content that you object to for any number of reasons.

As to your general point, moral relativism is garbage. Merrevail, goblins, orcs, nameless, are all evil. There is no debate there. The only real “innocents” in Moria are the beasts and bugs, but even they can be twisted and used by the Enemy to his ends.

24 10 2009
Tim

“If you’re uncomfortable deposing the merrevail or goblins from Moria, you don’t have to.”

A truly enlightened MMO would actually give you a real *choice* to help or not to help deposing the goblins et al. But, as you mention, LoTRO penalises you through withholding xp if you make a different moral claim than the one the story dictates. Pity.

26 10 2009
Mirl

According to Tolkein orcs are pure evil, they have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, so why should we feel sorry for them?

Looking at it from a dwarf perspective – the dwarves built Khazad Dum why should any other creature have any right to claim what their forefathers built with their own hands? While the dwarves are by no means perfect that are in no way inherently evil in the way that Sauron and the majority of his forces are.

Tim said “A truly enlightened MMO would actually give you a real *choice* to help or not to help deposing the goblins et al. ” and I agree with that to a point but I don’t think that aspect of an MMO would be sanctioned by Tolkein Enterprises as it would not be in keeping with Professor Tolkein’s view of Middel Earth.

I don’t think there can be any real world comparison (to the Middle East or anywhere else) as there is no such thing as an evil race in the real world something for which I am very grateful!

26 10 2009
J-I

Yes. And if we think about it, we ARE using arrow keys on our computers..all the time…, which are from ancient times used to point things out, often with the intent to kill. So when using them, we are actually supporting “arrow-dealers” or armsdealers in our time.
Seriously, it’s a GAME. There are no morals. There can be no ethics, because all we do is push buttons that somehow changes some lightswitches on our computer screen. You can read anything you want out of almost anything if you think philosophically about it. If you have moral objections to something in the game, don’t PAY to play it. It’s there for pure entertainment! (BTW Lord of the Rings is not a true story)

4 11 2009
Dragon Age and the Problem of the Darkspawn « The Angry Bear (ALPHA)

[…] sentient beings. Even when the cause is just, the process is tragic. Like my recent bout of guilt fighting the Morroval in Moria, I’m wondering how to feel about the Darkspawn I’ve […]

9 12 2009
coldbear

Loved the last sentence – it was the main focus of my graduate studies in National Security Studies and the one thing running through my head for the entirety of reading your article.

Good stuff. Now if only WoW would almost explicitly make the same type of conflict happen someplace between the Horde and the Alliance.

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